Hydrotherapy is one of the most widely used and oldest methods to treat injuries and disease by using water, either internally or externally to cleanse and revitalize the body.  This is done to maintain or revitalize health.  It encompasses different approaches that use water of different temperatures in different forms; from steam, liquid, or ice.  It may be applied in one form or all three forms.  Hydrotherapy serves to exert its effects both locally right to the site that is in need of care.  Hydrotherapy can also be used for the sites away from it application.  An example of this reflex action would the hydrotherapy treatment of liver.  If an application of heat was applied over the liver, it would not affect the liver directly.  It will be affected through the reflex arc where there will be vasodilatation of the liver as if it were heated directly. 

Hydrotherapy has been used to treat addiction through detoxification treatments.  Hydrotherapy can be used to encourage relaxation, thus aiding the general physical and mental health.  Hydrotherapy also serves to boost the immune and other body systems.

History of Hydrotherapy

The use of hydrotherapy has been used throughout earliest recorded history and has spanned many civilizations including: Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, Chinese, Native Americans, and numerous other cultures.  The different forms of hydrotherapy range from baths, saunas, mineral soaks, flushes, irrigations, steams, and compresses.  Hippocrates, a Greek physician regarded by many as the father of modern medicine, has used hydrotherapy to treat conditions such as ulcers, fevers, hemorrhages, amongst many others. 

Modern hydrotherapy owes a lot of its major principles and innovations to practitioners of the art.  Some were lay practitioners who learned more of the treatment through training while other was already trained physicians.  Vincent Preissnitz (1799-1852), a nineteenth-century Austrian peasant, supposedly used cold water application to treat his own broken ribs. Preissnitz found much success and started treating others afterwards.  Father Sebastian Kneipp (1821-1897), a German priest, treated and cured a case of tuberculosis after a few weeks of immersing himself in cold water.  His book My Water Cure (1890) is a respected guide in the hydrotherapy field.  A respected and prominent physician, William Winternitz (1834-1912) was a pioneer in the field after being one of the first to demonstrate hydrotherapy’s influence on the nervous system.  John Harvey Kellogg (1852-1943) is the author of Rational Hydrotherapy (1900) and remains one of the most comprehensive texts in the hydrotherapy field.  It includes over 1,100 pages of text and illustrations.  Kellogg also established the Battle Creek Sanatorium in Michigan.  It was here where hundreds of patients have been treated with hydrotherapy, exercise and diet. 

Hydrotherapy presently has been used as either a primary of supplemental therapy by several healthcare professionals including physicians, psychologists, and physical therapists.  It has been used to treat a wide range of conditions including stress, AIDs, addictions, and allergies. 

Hydrotherapy Theory

The core principle of hydrotherapy recognizes the mind and body connection.  Though most hydrotherapy treatments serve to relieve a physical condition, the theory that supports the treatment always comes back to the principle that the state of the body will affect the state of the mind.  The messengers that communicate the integral information that connects the major organs and systems of the whole person are the chemicals, toxins, and nutrients that hydrotherapy stimulates. 

External hydrotherapy is the application of water to the outside of the body.  There are three types of external hydrotherapy: hot water, cold water, or contrast.  Hot water stimulates the immune system so that white blood cells can remove toxins from the blood.  Hot water also serves to soothe the muscle.  It is also done to relax the nerves.  Since nerves send messages from the brain to other areas of the body, they also can affect our emotional, mental, and physical condition.  Cold water serves to counteract inflammation and swelling by blood vessel constriction.  Contrasting applications of cold and hot water is used for endocrine and adrenal gland stimulation, congestion reduction, and improvement of organ functioning.

Water that has high mineral content can provide additional benefits.  For example, water with high sulfur can help ease the symptoms of arthritis, rheumatism, and skin diseases.  Bicarbonate spring water has been used to treat allergies. 

Internal applications of hydrotherapy include drinking water to relieve dehydration.  Internal irrigations of hydrotherapy are often used to remove foreign material from the area of irrigation.  Ear lavage is a way of cleaning earwax from the external ear canal.  Colonic irrigation, otherwise known as enema, is used to get rid of hard and dry fecal material from the colon.  Through internal application, it is possible to take advantage of the different chemical, thermal, and mechanical characteristics of water.

Forms of Hydrotherapy

There are several forms of hydrotherapy, from baths and soaks, steams and saunas, flushes and irrigations, and compresses and wraps.  Using the versatile chemical properties of water, hydrotherapy can be used to remove useless, foreign materials from the body.  This can be accomplished by immersion in a tank of hot water or allowing water soluble substances to dissolve from the skin.  The chemical properties of water are also used to dissolve and apply desirable compounds.  One example is Epsom salts.  Internal and external application can be used by applying infusions and herbal teas. 

The thermal properties of water can be used to add or remove heat from the body, for example by raising a low body temperature or reduction of fever.  Hydrotherapy can decrease the pain of inflammations by relieving the heat, such as what is experienced during a sprained ankle.  Water has been found to alleviate the daily stresses and strain of modern life.  It can also be used to sooth the nervous system by treating the emotional and mental disturbances. 

The mechanical characteristics of water, whether it is in the form of sprays or showers, can be used to invigorate the various parts of the body.  The mechanical action of immersion can be used to exert pressure and to help relieve swelling, ease pain, improve movement, and provide resistance for exercise.  For people whose body condition is so debilitating that their exercise programs “on-land” are extremely difficult, hydrotherapy can provide a physical environment where progress can be made thus stimulating the patient’s motivation, which serves to engage the emotional component of the healing process.  

Care must be taken when applying hydrotherapy treatments to the elderly and the very young.  People of this age have a diminished ability to maintain their body temperature.  Persons with poor circulation or diminished sensation should also be treated with great care since it may be easy to freeze or burn tissue without them being aware of it. 

Applications of Hydrotherapy

Here are a few of the applications of hydrotherapy:

Colds, coughs, and upper-respiratory ailments

Symptoms are relieved by hot or cool steam from a humidifier.  Steam also keeps the respiratory passages moist to reduce the risk of infection.

Muscle Strains, sprains, and tendonitis

Ice packs can decrease swelling if applied every hour for the first day or two after the injury.  Once the swelling stops, hot compresses will relieve the soreness and stiffness.  The cold and hot contrast increases blood circulation and is used to promote the healing of muscle injuries. 

Skin Ailments and wounds

Hot sitz bath, where a person sits in a shallow tub of water, helps relieve hemorrhoid symptoms such as pain and itching.  It can also be used to relieve the discomfort of uterine cramps associated with menstrual cramps.  Whirlpool baths can also heal infected wounds and skin sore.  It also has been effective in helping paraplegics that are unable to move their limbs by improving their circulation. 



  1. Bratman, S. (1998). The Alternative Medicine Ratings Guide: an expert panel rates the best treatments for over 80 conditions. New York: Crown Publishing Group (1998)
  2. Brown, L. (1999). Alternative Medicine. London : Teach Yourself
  3. Deepak Chopra, M.D. (2002). Alternative Medicine: The Definitive Guide. Puyallup, Wash. : Future Medicine Pub.
  4. Duke, J. (2003). The Green Pharmacy: Herbal remedies for common diseases and conditions from the world's foremost authority on healing herbs. London : Rodale
  5. Nancy Allison.(1999). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Body-Mind Disciplines.New York : Rosen Pub. Group
  6. Servan-Schreiber, D.(2006). The Encyclopedia of New Medicine: Conventional & Alternative Medicine For All Ages. London : Rodale

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